The Fall of Jim Donnan
This is the follow up to my previous article, "The Rise of Jim Donnan."
Spring 1999: This is really where the collapse of the Donnan regime began. Donnan decides to hire Tennessee’s Kevin Ramsey as his defensive coordinator and demotes Joe Kines. While Ramsey is widely regarded as one of the SEC’s best recruiters, the decision to hire Kevin Ramsey as the defensive coordinator seems somewhat questionable given Ramsey’s coaching experience.
Summer 1999: Both Reggie Brown and Durrell Robinson fail to qualify.
Fall 1999: Kevin Ramsey decides that when you have a young and inexperienced secondary the proper defensive scheme is one with lots of tight, man-to-man coverage. Georgia gives up more than 25 points in the first half on three occasions, the most famous being when Ronny Daniels burned the Georgia secondary for 200 receiving yards in the first half as Auburn, who had a losing record, embarrassed Georgia in Sanford Stadium by a score of 38-21. Georgia finishes the season last in the SEC in yards surrendered per game and finishes next to last in points surrendered per game.
November 1999: With seconds left and Georgia inside the Georgia Tech 5, Donnan elects to run the ball one more time with the score tied 48-48. Jasper Sanks “fumbles” and the rest is history. The loss is Georgia’s 3rd in its last 4 games of 1999. This is the point when many Georgia fans started having serious reservations about whether Jim Donnan could take UGA to the next level. From a personal standpoint, I’m not sure Donnan’s decision to run Sanks one more time was that stupid. Georgia had been blowing down the field and Donnan thought that either (1) Sanks would score a touchdown, or (2) at worst, Georgia would be able to kick the game-winning field goal as time expired. My sentiments certainly weren’t as vitriolic as those of Len Pasquarelli:
“Jim Donnan, perhaps the thinnest-skinned man operating a Division I football program, ought to be castigated for an inexplicable blunder that probably cost the Bulldogs a victory in regulation. . . . He may be a brilliant offensive schemer, but Donnan remains an insecure man with a me-against-the-world mentality likely born of his long tenure at tiny Marshall. . . . Because university policy has kept him from employing his son as a full-time assistant, there have been rampant rumors Donnan was preparing his resignation. Given his strategy in the closing minutes of regulation, maybe he should have delivered it. . . . Donnan, in typical pass the buck fashion, hinted one of the game officials from the Southeastern Conference crew had graduated from the University of Florida and was out to get the Bulldogs . . .Conceding he blew the game was a difficult admission for a coach who began the season crowing that his team had closed the talent gap on SEC East powerhouses Tennessee and Florida, but it also was too little and way too late.”
February 2000: Georgia signs a somewhat disappointing recruiting class as they miss out on several of the state’s top recruits. Kevin Ramsey fails to sign nearly every player he recruits.
February 2000: After Ramsey’s horrific performance both as a defensive coordinator and a recruiter, Donnan decides to demote him to being just the secondary coach. When Donnan informs Ramsey of his decision, a heated argument and physical confrontation ensues in Donnan’s office. Legend has it that Ramsey punched Donnan. I certainly understand Ramsey’s behavior because the best way to set yourself up for a defensive coordinator position with another team in the future is to physically assault the coach that just fired you. Ramsey later maturely refers to Donnan as “Pontius Pilate.” Surprisingly enough, Ramsey hasn’t been a defensive coordinator at the D-1A level since. In 2003, he was canned after one year on the job as Arizona State’s cornerbacks coach. Ramsey is now misguiding the defense at Carson-Newman.
Defensive Coordinator or Mafia Enforcer?
April 2000: Jim Donnan hires his own son, Todd, as the quarterbacks coach. Though UGA has an anti-nepotism policy, Donnan is able to circumvent the policy by making Todd a joint coach and fundraiser. Making him a fundraiser meant he would be supervised (from a technical standpoint) by the athletic department and not by Donnan himself. This move did not bother me quite as much as some other fans. I figured that if Todd Donnan could get the job done, then what did it really matter if he was Jim Donnan's son or not. My biggest concern was whether Todd, in his late 20s at the time, had the experience to get the job done.
Summer 2000: Donnan, speaking at a Bulldog Touchdown Club Meeting, makes the most infamous statement of his career: “I’ve been waiting 55 years to be the head coach of a football team that has this much potential, and I guarantee you that we’re going to get it done.” The phrase would increase in notoriety as the losses began to mount. It remains one of the most well-known quotes in UGA history.
Mack Williams is a genius, and this is one of my favorites
October 2000: Donnan breaks Georgia’s decade-long losing streak against Tennessee by defeating the Vols 21-10 and putting Georgia back in the thick of the SEC East race.
October 2000: An array of first half mistakes prevents Georgia from blowing the game open against Florida and the two teams go into halftime tied 17-17. Florida takes control in the second half and defeats Georgia for the third time in a row by the score of 34-23. The loss effectively knocks Georgia out of the SEC East race.
November 2000: Georgia Tech dominates Georgia in Athens and wins the game by a score of 27-15. The loss is Georgia’s third in a row to Georgia Tech and drops Georgia to 7-4.
November 2000: The week after Donnan drops the game to Georgia Tech, Vince Dooley announces that Jim Donnan has been let go as Georgia’s head coach. Donnan decides to stay on and coaches Georgia to victory in the Oahu Bowl. Donnan finishes his UGA career with a 40-19 record.
More than 5 years after Jim Donnan coached his last game at Georgia opinions about him still remained quite polarized. To some, Donnan was an outstanding coach who simply fell victim to the unrealistic expectations of delusional Georgia fans. To others, Donnan was a bumbling hack who had absolutely no business running an SEC football program. The truth probably lies somewhere in between. Perhaps the most important contribution Donnan made was that he got the talent level at Georgia back up to the point where we could be competitive again. At the same time, I think he started to place too much emphasis on hauling in great recruiting classes and hired Kevin Ramsey simply because he had a reputation as a great coordinator. I think he assumed that as long as Ramsey was hauling in blue chip prospects the defense would simply fall in place.
Another mistake that Donnan made is that he failed to get Georgia fans to like him on a personal level. While I never met the man and cannot confirm this, many Georgia fans found him to be a little “standoffish” and just not a very personable individual. I think one problem was that Donnan had some difficulty adjusting to the media attention that comes with the Georgia job because he came from a D-1AA program that wasn’t the major college program covered by a major media market such as Atlanta. As an example of how the media often felt about Donnan, look at how Pasquerelli’s quote above seems more than just objective criticism -- it seems to take on a personal tone (calling Donnan “thin-skinned” and “an insecure man”). The AJC’s Mark Bradley was also notorious for absolutely lacing into Donnan. Donnan may have been a great guy to know, but he failed to project that image to the media and I think it hurt him. Ray Goff is a fine example of how being well-liked can take you a long way when you coach in the SEC. Had Donnan compiled a record like Goff’s, he probably would not have even lasted as long as he did. However, Goff lasted two more years than Donnan despite having a much worse record because he was so well-liked by the Georgia fans. This is one area where Mark Richt has certainly done an outstanding job.
Jim Donnan’s record through 5 years was 40-19, which was the second-best winning percentage of any Georgia coach since the 1920s. This is doubly impressive considering that the Florida and Tennessee programs were at their peak during this time. However, the problem really seemed to be the direction that the program was headed. Since going 10-2 in 1997, Georgia had been taking steps backwards and went 7-4 in 2000 with a team absolutely stacked with NFL talent. Perhaps Donnan’s worst sin, from a record standpoint, was that he had dropped 3 in a row to Georgia Tech. If he wins one or two of those games, he most likely would not have been fired.
Another problem was that there was a perception that Donnan didn’t quite have the control over the team’s off the field activities that he should have. And when he was fired, the University suggested that there were some behind-the-scenes happenings that they were not pleased with.
Donnan will probably continue to be a man that elicits very strong feelings concerning his performance as Georgia’s head coach. I firmly believe that Georgia never would have achieved the success they have over the last 4 years had Jim Donnan been their coach instead of Mark Richt. At the same time, I think that Donnan had a big hand in laying the groundwork for that success. Ultimately, I just don’t think Donnan had the head coaching skills to take Georgia to the level that Mark Richt has. I think Donnan would have made a fine offensive coordinator and a good recruiter, but I think he lacked the managerial and personnel skills to run a program that consistently finishes in the Top 10.